Art’s travel


The night train takes you from Delhi to Haridwar in less than 5 hours. You could also drive down by road if the weather is pleasant.

Haridwar is fast emerging a business destination as well with the incentives being offered by the Uttarkhand government to set up manufacturing facilities there. This is also evident with the presence of a Ginger hotel there.

In Rishikesh, the places popularly frequented are the yoga centres and the jhoolas- Lakshman and Ram jhoola. Jhoolah literally means swing and the bridges are “hanging” bridges, there are gigantic cables holding them up and it depresses with the growing weight of users on the bridge. The Ganges is huge but not glorious – far from sparkling and pure- it looks muddy and dirty as you can see in this picture.
Lakshman Jhoola

There are ropeways to get you to the 2 main temples on the hills and I was surprised at how temples differ by region. Temples in the South are exquisitely carved and mammoth in size as well. These temples looked like modern concrete slabs in comparison. The deity is usually metal or black stone in the South versus marble in the North. In the South larger temples at least use genuine jewelry and adorn the deities with silks or cotton whereas I was amused to see synthetic fabric on the Goddesses there. Here is a pic of an imposing Shiva on a road side.
Mammoth Shiva

The lighting of lamps at the end of each day, at Har ki Pauri, in prayer by countless devotees in Haridwar is really mesmerizing. It begins soon after sun set and thousands of diyas make their way across the river.

As for “paet puja” you will find a number fo sweet lime juice vendors all through the one hour drive from Haridwar to Rishikesh. Also try and catch up with Chotiwala in Swar Ashram – a much touted restaurant near the lakshman jhoola- it is truly value for money and even has a garish chotiwala who ushers you in. Alcohol and non vegetarian food is banned in the city.

The colour of the river, the number of guides, touts and obviously drug addicted sadhus made me very uncomfortable. I was left feeling that one would have to be a very firm believer of God to like these two places.

Or you could be a rafting ( at Shivpuri) or a yoga enthusiast ( like the Beatles).

Madurai enjoys the sobriquet ‘Athens of the East’ and stands on the banks of the Vaigai river. We drove down from Kodai and found it a comofrtable journey despite the heat.

The story goes that a king of Madurai was childless for a long time. He prayed rigorously and was granted a three-breasted girl (an avatar of Parvati). A divine voice assured him that the third breast would disappear as soon as she fell in love. The girl grew into a brave and beautiful princess, won many battles and lost her heart to Shiva. Her third breast disappeared and she was married to Shiva. They came to be known as Meenakshi and Sundareswarar– the main deities of the Madurai temple.The temple could be as much a historian and architect’s delight as it is a religious believer’s.

Ruled by many, it was the capital city of Pandya Kings and they built the Meenakshi-Sundareswar Temple. Then Alauddin Khilji’s men plundered it and after a while it went to the Vjaynagar kings. Their Governors- nayaks- “naikars” took charge and restored/enhanced the glory of the shrine.

The city was originally like a set of concentric circles – with the Madurai Meenakshi temple at the center and the streets around it are named after Tamil months. There are five entries to the temple but the east one is preferred ( possibly because it leads to the Goddess’ sanctum). I wonder how Lord Sundareswarar or Shiva feels about being second to his wife. The Meenakshi idol is beguiling with a parrot and bouquet, so I am sure she knows how to appease him.

Spread over many acres, you can see the 12 colossal towers of the temple – Gopurams- beckon you from almost anywhere in the city. They represent the various directions. To the western & uninitiated eye the gopurams with the idols numbering over 1000 each, may appear kitschy with the over powering colours and clutter even. But it will leave everyone mesmerized. And as kids are wont to do, counting the tiers of a Gopuram will leave you with a strained neck! The Southern Gopuram is the tallest at 160 feet and the only one that may be climbed.

Apart from the Shiva and Meenkashi shrines, you cannot miss the gigantic Ganesha called Mukkurini Pillaiyar. One of the Nayakars unearthed this idol elsewhere and erected the same here.  Dwarapalakas, apsaras, various other gods adorn the temple walls. There are colourful murals depicting celestial weddings. The ceiling art include Vaishnavite themes as well. The Musical Pillars, the thousand pillar hall, various mandapams, the old stump of the Bilva tree, the God of Delivery, are all worth seeing and have some myth related to them.

And there is the Golden lotus tank. Huge corridors border the tank and it is surprisingly kept dry and fairly clean for the amount of footfalls it gets. The corridors are said to have been the meeting ground for the Sangam poets. Any literary work was judged by throwing it into the tank. Only if it did not sink was it considered worthy of attention! A case where the writing material would have been more important than the written matter!

The Meenakshi temple is open to public from 5 am-1 pm and from 4 am to 10 pm

Also go here

What began as a sanatorium by an American Mission in the nineteenth century, is today, a rather untarnished hill station- possibly South India’s more scenic answer to Matheran.

It is off season now by definition- but a boatman explained that the weather in Kodai is great all year through, from cool to cold. The off season comes from lack of holidays and therefore lack of visitors! This was a blessing since we did not have to contend with long queues and unruly crowds while sight seeing.

We were 13 of us, including 5 kids. The gang from Blore joined us at Kodai road station. We set off in a mini bus, a 3 hour journey to Kodaikanal. Halted en route for fruits and corn ( ensure you try the pears, star fruit, avocado, tree tomato and raamphal, a variation of custard apple)

We stayed 3 days, 2 nights and that was just about right.

Being such a large gang we settled for the Sterling Lake view rather than the Carlton ( a more stately 5 star hotel) . There seem to be many other good options to choose from anyway including home stays.

The Sterling property is really nice and comfortable that too since we got the rooms with kitchens attached. While the intention is not to do full fledged cooking, coffee, noodles are easy access what with little children around. The property is full of flowering plants and you would love to walk despite the steep inclines.Sterling offers the usual mix of a children’s park, just about acceptable dining fare, and interactive games including the ubiquitous housie( tambola) each evening.

There are cycles available on hire. Near the lake, there are a lot of horses to choose from as well. Since we were so many, we took a tourister.

Any travel book will tell you all the various points with their old worldly names- Coaker’s walk, Green Valley, Echo Rock, Dolphin Nose, Bryant Park, Moier Point, etc and waterfalls and the Kurinji Temple that you could see. It has not been raining enough in Kodai which is why the waterfalls were not in their full glory- a sore point for me specially since I love waterfalls.

Among the do-not-miss places are the Pillar Rocks…. They even have a cross at the peak that a father-son duo put up there. The vast and gorgeous pine forest’s claim to fame is the many movie songs shot there so we did the rounds of the trees and took snaps as well Bollywood style.

A 500 year old Jamun tree still stands tall and yields fruit as well and close by you will see countless pear trees.

There is Devil’s kitchen, a cave where in complete access is denied since people have lost their lives in it, but this could have been intriguing. It was the one that Gunna starring Kamal Hassan was shot in.

The mandatory boat ride in the main lake, was enjoyed by all of us with the mist hanging over often. Life jackets are not provided. There are boat races three times a year- one for outsiders, one for the Kodai schools and one for the boatmen. You can have the paddle boat to yourself if you wish but we opted for one with a boatman since we were not sure about Anushka’s response.

Plastic has been banned but it is not very well enforced as you can see by the lake bank. And there has been a stay order on the lake “clean up” machine since it does not do a good enough job.

Onto food. While there is a Punjab Dhabaa, a restaurant near Foodworld and a nicely named Rasoi, the one we went to was a quiet, almost desolate little Patel joint for very homely Jain/ Rajasthan food with fluffy hot phulkas. There is an excellent pastry shop near the bus stand.

And a very unassuming cheese store which can teach you a lot about the subject without going to Switzerland. It is just opposite Savitri- Gemini Ganeshan’s house. As you would have noticed there are a lot of “cine ” connections in Kodai.

The must buys are dry fruits such as figs, cashews, walnuts, raisins and spices, cheese and tea. And of course home made chocolates. Also native to Kodai are the hand made earrings which you can bargain down to Rs 10 a pair. Makes for an excellent gift.

(While Apu has a bout of laziness, and is yet to pen her mainland Europe stories, Artnavy brings in a short tale from the Western Indian coast)

On the less advertised Konkan coast, near Ratnagiri, in Maharashtra, lies a serene beach village called Ganapathi Phule.

Named after the Ganesh temple which Chatrapathi Sivaji is said to have visited, the beach can rival, but is not as well known as those in Goa or Kovalam. It is pristinely beautiful with fine white sand and the water is so clear that you can see your toes right through the water. But it can turn hostile – so we were warned against venturing too deep.

This is THE place if your idea of a holiday is drawing circles in the sand, going on long walks, picking up shells and just ruminating on your own thoughts – soul searching.

Back in my teens, a bumpy car ride from Ratnagiri ( about 50 kms ) got us to the MTDC cottages there. The cottages were cosy, a little frugal but clean. They adjoin the beach so you can watch the sea from the cottage. For the more adventurous of spirit you can also hire tents and some water sports are available.

Talking of spirits, back then only beer was served. I guess you could carry your own or go without for a couple of days. The food was not good for a veggie but I am told the sea food is fantastic. Now you could check out Hotel Durvankur, Bhau Joshi’s Lunch home and Kelkar Lodge which offer good Maharashtrian veggie fare.

Apart from the beach and the Ganapathi temple, if you are one of those restless ones, you could explore the Fort at Jaigad, the Light house and Pavas, the abode of Swami Swarupanand, if you are into spiritual stuff.

Kokum juice, cashewnuts and alphonso mangoes are ideal souvenirs – if in season. Srikhand, Thaali Peeth and sol kadi you should get all year round anyway…

A bike ride away from Ahmedabad, about 70kms away, off the highway lies one of nature’s gems tucked away from crowds.

Nalasarovar is a big marshy lake, filled with tall grass. These attract a large variety of birds such as storks, spoonbills, pelicans,egrets, kingfishers and of course, flamingoes, also pink ones.

We borrowed Panditji’s ( our head cook) bike and drove down at around 5 am.

Obviously we looked like students( which is what we were) and did not have to bargain too much. For I think a hundred rupees, including the entry fee, we got a really knowledgeable boatman who spoke Hindi and even some English. His discourse was punctuated by silences as we drew near the birds. It is remarkable – the sounds of various birds in the quiet of the morning.

As we meandered through the marshes, we saw the sun rise, lots of birds one had only seen in the Salim Ali book and of course fish darting by the boat, in the water. Just as I was giving up hope of being able to see the flamingoes, there they were. A whole flock of them. We waited in anticipation for them to swoop up and display their pink and black wings and bodies in full splendor. They teased us as though they knew we were watching. Then all at once they rose in unison- like a crescendo. So exquisite. So majestic.

If you wish to go there, you could check out the Forest Guest House as well.

I did not have a digicam then, just an automatic Kodak which failed to zoom in on the glory of these birds.

But the memories are crystal clear, even after a decade.

Venice was in the news recently for the woman Gondolier from Germany who has been granted licence into a hitherto male domain.

After visiting the magnificent St Mark’s square, viewing an ad shoot with a woman running in a gorgeous scarlet gown among the pigeons, the imposing church and the captivating Murano factory of coloured glass works, we took the mandatory ride in the Gondolas- the special black coloured boats where singers serenade you as you navigate the canals.

We had an aging male Gondolier straight out of the movies. He sang as we went along but did not look very chirpy or even happy. However the gondolier next to ours was groovy and for once I wished we had been behind in the queue.

Do you know why the gondolas are painted black? They were expected to remain inconspicuous at night, as gentleman of the city carried on their affairs in them with others’ wives!

And here is another thing about Venice- you need not have perfect furniture. The city, mostly built on the logs of black forest, is constantly sinking. Houses constantly develop unpredictable ups and downs on their floors.

So this could be a good destination for the neighbourhood carpenter who ruined your new sofa!

Remember the nomad uncle, Travelling Matt, of Fraggle Rock? He would send a card back, towards the end of each episode to his nephew on how humans- ” silly creatures” behave. ( rechristened “muggles” after Harry Potter). He travelled alone always.

On the other hand there is Asterix. I am like him. No- not the height or the magic potion bit. And I have nothing against Romans. I am not a lone traveller. I prefer company. But there have been instances when I wished I did not have company.

Travel bugs and what I would like to tell them:
Window snatcher– in a non air-conditioned train/ bus- I like the breeze on my face as well, not to mention the view
Slow pokes – while one need not cram the agenda, there should be some bit of timeplan to a trip
Whiners– Forever complaining and comparing – Back home… – “Then you should have stayed home.”
Caffeine Addict– Stickler for coffee/ tea timings and quality while travelling- “get a flask”
Dirty Harry– trashes about- no excuses- “I do not know you.”
Kebabs mein haddis/ Tag alongs– While travelling with a conducted tour group, those who do not give a couple a few minutes of privacy
Money minder-” Don’t make me feel guilty”
Fanatics– I am X religion So I will not visit a Y religious centre- ” Get a life- enjoy the architecture”

Do you have any to add?

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